Selecting cloth may be the hardest part of the bespoke (or made-to-measure) process. You pick the style of a suit every time you buy one off the rack, but you’re unlikely to have ever looked at a tiny square of cloth and tried to imagine what it would look like on you, head-to-toe.
What is it for?
A lot of the work should be done before you even visit a tailor. The right cloth is largely driven by questions of when and where you will wear the finished piece, so make sure you have considered questions in advance such as:
- How formal does it have to be?
- Will the suit or jacket be worn just for the office? For a special event? Or for a mix? What is appropriate in those settings in terms of material, colour and pattern?
- How heavy should it be?
- Will you wear it all year round, or just for particular times of the year? When you do, will you ever really be outside for long, or just in air conditioning?
- What else will it be worn with?
- Consider whether you are likely to wear the finished piece with a shirt and tie, or sweater and jeans. Or even both.
Once you have these ideas straight in your head, the challenge is communicating your desires to the tailor or salesperson, so they can guide you through the cloth options.
One easy way to aid communication is to wear something similar or bring in a picture of what you want. This may seem silly, but visual demonstration is a lot easier than verbal.
The tailor may instantly realise that you want a tweed with a harder, smooth finish, like a Saxony; rather than a heavy, woolly Harris tweed. But chances are you would have struggled to put that into words.
How cloth is made
Speaking of language, it’s worth being aware that there are four main stages in the making of cloth that affect how it looks and wears. The tailor may use points of each to explain the options.
We will go into more detail on all four in separate chapters of this guide, but for the moment they can be summarised as:
- Design. The obvious aspect – the colour and the pattern. There are shades and casts of everything, so it’s worth comparing colours and seeking advice on them
- Material. Whether the fibre is wool, linen, cotton or cashmere, but also how fine it is (the ‘Super’ numbers)
- Weaving. How that raw material is woven into cloth. This will be most obvious in the pattern (twill, herringbone etc) but also affects performance
- Finishing. Probably the most underrated area, this can turn woven cloth into something very smooth and silky, or rough and rustic
What are its properties?
Often, these four stages are the ones a tailor or salesperson will focus on. But arguably the important thing is the effects these have on the cloth.
And when you’re comparing a whole range of different navy jacketings, for example, it is these effects you need to consider.
Some of the most obvious are:
- Hardness. The suit you wear to work (a worsted wool) has a harder finish than the soft, woollen cashmere you might wear as a jacket. This hard finish makes the cloth sleeker and smoother.
- Crispness or dryness. Cloth that is crisper is sharp, creating a longer-lasting crease in a trouser. The surface also tends to feel drier. Linen often feels drier than a worsted wool used for suiting.
- Nap. The hairiness – the length of the visible fibres on the cloth. In practice closely related to the hardness/softness.
- Weight. An easy one to focus on. Most cloths will state their weight in grams and/or ounces. Remember that heavier cloths will tend to drape and wear better.
- Breathability. A cloth with a more open weave will tend to allow more air through, so it wears cooler.
- Wrinkle-resistance. A high-twist cloth tends to feel stiffer and won’t wrinkle as easily. Often recommended for travel.
If you go into a tailor with merely the idea that you want a sharp suit, you will likely first be asked some of the questions at top – as to when and where you will use it. So consider them in advance.
Then you may be presented with different options, with the explanation that one is softer, lighter or more breathable than another. It’s worth understanding the ‘effects’ listed above to anticipate these.
What do I do with it?
Once you have those options in front of you, what do you do? Is it like tasting a wine in a restaurant – are you expected just to nod and smile?
Try to do more than that. Here are some recommendations, gathered from my own experience and the tips of Savile Row’s top salesmen and tailors.
- Narrow down your choices fairly quickly, if you can. Try to get to a point where you have 4-5 options laid out alongside each other. Perhaps different shades, or slightly different patterns.
- Feel each suggested cloth between your fingers. Get a sense of how smooth, soft or crisp it is. Although you don’t wear cloth against your skin, you do feel it with your hands, and feel how it moves with your body.
- Make sure you consider which side of the cloth is intended to go on the outside. They are not always the same. Usually the reverse side will have the label on it showing the code and weight.
- Consider the different colours carefully. Take them to a window or outside to get a sense of them in natural light.
- Compare them to each other. Often you don’t realise the colour of a navy until you compare it to black. Perhaps also put them against different colours of shirt – white or blue – to see how they change.
- If there is a pattern, try to visualise it repeating outwards. This is often one of the hardest things to do, particularly with large designs. In general, subtle patterns like herringbones and Prince-of-Wales checks will become more subtle when worn head to toe. They just become texture. But big, bold patterns and colours can become stronger.
- Some tailors will have bolts of fabric available that you can get down and drape across yourself. This is worth doing. Even if you don’t want that particular one, it can be useful to get an idea of how a shade, or a pattern, will look full-length.
- Don’t feel you have to make a decision right away. Often the tailor can give you a small section of the cloth, to compare to things at home, or request one from the cloth merchant. This should always be big enough to see the full repeat of a pattern. There are often enough things to consider on a first trip to the tailor, without having to be final on cloth as well.
The cut of your suit is the most important thing to how it looks and feels. But I find I wear suits far more when I love the cloth; it’s more important than we’d like to admit. Spend time over it.
As with everywhere else on Permanent Style, we would encourage comments on these posts. It creates, over time, a body of knowledge and experience that I know readers return to time and again.
Let us know your experiences and your advice.
Hi Simon, I always find it useful to look at some of the ‘works in progress’ when I visit my tailor (he has very few ‘display’ garments). Not only does this give me a sense of the weight of the items in various cloths, but also how different cloths will look and drape when finished. I have learned a lot about which cloths to use and which to avoid by doing this.
A very exciting series Simon! Thank you.
Is it fair to say that a fabric sample will often appear very slightly darker than a full suit in the same fabric?
Yes, I would say so
Thank you for this useful insight. Personally I have to admit to only having a general idea when I choose cloth, then looking through the various books for inspiration. This might be too amateurish, but I also do not care for the extreme opposite of online fora discussing obscure mills in depth, even though it is extremely interesting.
Two points that I would like to add is first that it is important to have a precise idea of the style one is looking for, e.g. I have been looking for “tweedy” fabrics for a long time, then obviously exploring the iterations you already mention. Second, texture is key but also very difficult to grasp. For example as much the Breanish Tweed run you did, as a Scabal cashmere/wool jacket I had made, have a very slight herringbone texture that is not immediately noticeable but does add a very nice texture.
Interesting that Scabal has no “tailoring club” in Japan (an obvious choice, I would think — Dormeuil has a shop in Tokyo) or the U.S. other than Puerto Rico. (And yes, advertising works.)
This post is an excellent starting point indeed. It happens that you once gave me a very good piece of advice worth mentionning here too, since it is related to how to choose fabrics when one is beginning to build up a sound and smart wardrobe. Say, one is considering having a good blazer made. At such a level, it really doesn’t make sense to set one sight on super numbers or delicate fabrics.
Under such circumstances which fabrics are worth being perused could be a challenge even if a taylor might be very helpful. Back then, I went for hopsack!
I think this is a great post and I agree with you that while fit might be the most important part of a bespoke garment, selecting the fabric is the most personal and can be the most fun. I tend to find myself wanting to wear the different patterns and fabrics that visually appeal to me. In selecting between a couple of fabrics I tend to really focus on the tiny details of the fabric and examine it real close (<12in away). But I know that I will never be looking at the fabric pattern this closely when I am wearing a garment and more importantly other people will not notice all of those little subtleties from a regular talking distance. Do you have any advice or suggestions on the appropriate distance to judge a fabric?
Good question Tom. I think you (and even others) will end up appreciating the details of a fabric too, but I suggest you consider that and a more distanced impression (say stepping back a couple of metres) separately as factors in selecting the fabric
I think this is a great step for people who really don’t know where to start, but even with a modicum of clarity, going to a tailor and saying “I want a medium weight cloth in dark blue which doesn’t crease much to wear for work” is going to yield the right result. Out will come books from Dugdale, Smith, Lesser etc which will allow comparisons to be made. None of the great cloths made in UK mills is ever going to disappoint.
The more you compare and contrast, the harder it will get, and the more you will eventually doubt if you have actually made the right choice.
I am a new subscriber to your blog as I have recently started my sartorial journey. I understand this is only your first entry to this particular series, but it has already impacted the way I view shopping. The timing is perfect as I have been visiting a few tailors here in Toronto for my first sportcoat commission. I am very much excited for the next coming entries. Keep up the great work!
What a jacket is for is an important question, but it will of course give very different answers.
E.g. T. Everest always proposed Scabal while Chittleborough & Morghan seemed to be into sturdy Dugdale or fine Loro Piano. Every tailor and house have their favourites and fixed ideas about what the ideal fabric for a certain project should be.
I find some fabrics are not durable. Particularly the Loro Piana high Supers. They wear out between the legs and quickly. I have fat thighs.
1. Is there a workaround like fusing the fabric on the inside or adding an extra layer (for darker fabrics) to address this?
2. Failing that, how does one identify less delicate fabrics that won’t wear out from the friction of constant rubbing. What are the factors that make a cloth more or less likely to wear from friction?
Excellent article Simon.
The one thing I have found useful over recent years is buying the cloth and taking the bold home for a few weeks or months before proceeding with the commission. I decided to do this after what seemed to be a particularly nice tweed pattern in a swatch turned into an unwearable clown outfit when presented as the finished jacket.
It’s probably not as necessary with a plain fabric, but I would have saved the cost of that jacket. And of course you can always sell the fabric bolt on if you decide against it.
Finally, it’s worth looking at the fabric at the right time of day. Don’t pick a dinner jacket fabric in a bright naturally-lit room, or a tweed in an artificially lit dingy windowless room.
Very useful Simon, I slowly feel I am getting better at commissioning, but the emphasis is on slowly! I might know 75% if I really thought about everything, but it is amazingly helpful to see it written down in a simple structured way like this.
One of the things which has always confused me is the difference in cost of cloths at different tailors. Some seem to have very little difference in price between the cloths (I assume just difference in cost), while some others seem to up sell the premium cloths (Loro Piana etc) with massive markups. I now have a bit of a feel as to which tailor I would go to for cashmere jacket (one with less markup!) vs a suit in simpler cloth (my absolute favourite). Given the pretty opaque world of bespoke prices at the best of times this makes it even more complicated.
Yes, that can be an issue. Unfortunately it’s just up to the tailor whether they want to pass the higher cost of the cloth on, or even add there own margin on top of it.
A most interesting article my compliments.
Ex Scabal Man
Hi Simon, I picked up some rather beautiful melange tweed from a weaver in Donegal recently – a green/blue and a blue/grey. The green/blue is bolder than the blue/grey.
My plan is to get the blue/grey turned into a casual jacket and perhaps go for a coat in the green/blue. For the green/blue I guess an Ulster would be relatively safe choice but I quite fancy a Polo in a non-traditional colour/fabric combination.
What do you think? Any musings and advice much appreciated.
Sounds nice Hugh, though hard to give much comment without seeing them.
I think you could have the materials either way round – generally you would have a more conservative coat than a jacket, as you’re likely to have fewer coats and want it to be more versatile. But completely depends on your wardrobe of course
Excellent article! I think that one of your tips that is an absolute “must” to follow is to take the fabric outside or to a window, and look at it in natural light. This is especially important if you live in a sunnier climate like I do (Los Angeles). A fabric will look substantially different in LA than it does in the duller sunlight of a city like London.
When trying to get a feel for what a pattern will look like, you might want to check out Holland & Sherry’s new website. It has a feature that helps you see what a pattern will look like on a jacket. Even if you are not buying a H&S fabric, they give you information like the width of a herringbone pattern, or the dimensions of an over check pattern, that will help you judge comparable fabrics.
I found this article to be the most appropriate place for my enquiry – having trawled through Styleforum, it seems that most, more often than not, purchase their own cloth and bring it to their tailors to commission. I believe the SF acronym for this would be “CMT”. Is this usually the case for you too, and is there a substantial saving in taking the effort to source for your own cloths and bring it to one’s tailor? Thanks Simon.
I don’t believe that’s what the majority of people do by any means. The range of cloths available is so large from most tailors that there is little advantage to sourcing your own unless you particularly want an unusual colour, texture, weave etc. And most people don’t. There is also not much of a cost saving – and a concomitant risk in buying cloth online, sight unseen. I’d recommend, at least when you start out, to pick cloth at the tailor
Great, thank you Simon.
Just started to read this particular post. I like the way you convey the basics in a very simple manner for all to be able to understand.
Keep up the good work.
Simon, I really like how you’ve addressed the emotional aspect to selecting cloth. With a relatively small wardrobe I am keen to acquire a classic grey flannel suit. The issue is whether to go with the heart and opt for woollen, or think about longevity and settle for worsted flannel. Either way, I’d be looking at extra trousers and cloth on the heavier side. Any thoughts?
I wouldn’t assume worsted flannel would last better, particularly as it’s usually lighter in weight. Go for a 13oz or heavier woollen flannel if you can
Excellent, thanks Simon.
Simon, I suppose Scabal make fabrics for their own suits, but who actually makes the suits? Caruso? I heard some are made in Germany. Any idea?
Dear Simon, thanks for clarifying so many of the issues relating to cloth! Could you please give me any advice as to where I might purchase good fabric (in London or online) at a reasonable cost as someone who’s not a tailor myself. I’m a student with a limited budget and therefore cannot, alas, afford to have clothes made by any of the illustrious houses on Savile row or other comparable tailors. I (kind of) need bespoke as I struggle to find anything fitting off the rack because of my height (6’6″) and alterations such as lengthening the sleeve and slimming up the waist/chest often look comical. I now have two tailors who make clothes for me in eastern Europe where the prices are still accessible (to me at least), and I feel the quality is pretty good. The only issue is that the client has to source his cloth. (had a navy suit made a while back with some material I discovered in an antique shop). Looking forward to receiving your guidance! Many thanks and very best wishes, Andy
Hi Andy. There aren’t many, but Fox Brothers is certainly a good place to start.
I am seeing that Lumbs Golden Bale suiting fabrics are popular. I don’t think I’ve read any of your coverage on the bunch – what are your thoughts on the fabric range?
It’s very nice Bernie, I used an overcoating version for my Sexton coat.
If we were looking at most importantly value for the first two suits – navy & charcoal, would you go for Lumbs Golden Bale? Or would you go with Harrisons, Holland & Sherry, VBC, or some other fabric? I know from reading your “Clothes That I Have Known” for H&S that you do like their worsted 11oz suiting fabric.
If you were looking for value, then no I wouldn’t go with Lumbs Golden Bale. I would go with a straightforward 11oz or 13oz suiting fabric from an English mill. And don’t worry too much about what bunch it comes from – there isn’t much difference between them for that kind of cloth.
Thank you, Simon!
On the topic of Lumbs Golden Bale, I note it is remarkably softer. Would this make it less durable than a similarly weighted standard worsted wool?
I like the colour of a cloth I’ve seen slightly more as compared to alternatives from standard bunches, however, I don’t want to pay the premium for it if it will be less durable. My priorities are durability/longevity, drape, and wrinkle-resistance.
Not necessarily, no. The softness could be down to a few things, from the fibre to the finish. It might have a finish on it that gives it some softness, but the density of the weave would still make it quite hard wearing.
A question of etiquette. Have you ever had second thoughts about a cloth you have chosen, and asked for a change of cloth after a first fitting (same fabric, different tone and obviously paying for the additional cloth)? I’m reluctant to do ask the tailor but wondered how bad form that is and whether you have any experience of this? I can live with the decision I have made but I’m just wondering if it is something that can be done without inconveniencing the tailor too much.
Thanks very much,
Hi John. I think changing cloth like this is more a question of extra costs, rather than etiquette. The tailor will already have done considerable work to cut and fit the existing cloth, so if you change cloth I think you need to expect the tailor to charge you something extra for doing that work over again. I don’t know how much that will be, but that’s the question you need to ask
My appologies if this comment does not relate to your discussion topic. I would like to know how to define the “4 ply” term in todays sartorial standard? is it the combination of threads in the yarn or is it to describe the weight of the yarn (as the thread combination can be thinner or thicker). Sometimes i also heard people say that a 4 ply fabric is more wrinkle resistance. Thank you for your time.
It’s the number of threads making up the yarn. And yes a 4-ply will often be more wrinkle resistant but it doesn’t have to be – other things like the denseness of the weave make a difference too
I’m debating between 3 mid-gray pick-on-pick cloths for my next suit (HS 6519048, SW 3508, Dugdale 9433). All are 400 g/13 oz. However, the HS one feels thinner than the other two, feels less hairy, and is maybe slightly dryer (though that might just be because it is less hairy). Is it possible the HS has been woven with slightly tighter/denser yarn? Or is the difference I’m feeling probably all just down to finishing?
I’m afraid it’s really hard to tell, having not seen all three myself. If they’re the same weight, though, then chances are the HS is a denser weaver, yes
For a blazer, what material would you choose between wool fresco, merino wool twill and wool hopsack for year round? They are all around the same weight with the fresco being 9.75 oz while the other two are 9.5 oz. Also, what is the formality scale for the different material
Also, how well would a grey herringbone sports coat be at 8 oz for year round wear?
Fresco and hopsack are hot weather materials, not year round.
Fresco is best for suits, hopsack for jackets.
How about merino wool twill? How would that work?
That’s probably less of a summer cloth, but it’s a very general description.
All wool is merino pretty much, and most cloths are twills. What’s the weight?
OK, well that sounds good then but still not really a year-round weight, unless you live somewhere very hot. More like 11oz would be better
I’m browsing for some fabrics online, but they have listed the weighs in linear meter and in square meter. As you can imagine, the numbers differ quite a bit between the two.
Is there a standard I should follow?
Hi Simon, I would like to ask whether Loro Piana wool fabrics (e.g. Soppra visso bunch) are generally more expensive than other brands, such as Escorial or Fox wool?
Some bespoke tailors tell me that they are more expensive, which would increase the overall price for my commission, and some tell me they aren’t due to Loro Piana’s economies of scale.
I don’t know what prices tailors pay to Loro Piana, but those are all expensive cloths Jack, and they’re all going to make your commissions more expensive
Okay, thanks, Simon.
So could I assume that the cloths’ prices from the same company could vary depending on the tailors?
Not really, no. The prices will be similar, but the upcharge the tailor chooses to charge could vary. Also LP cloths will vary too, so some might be generalising, some just talking about the high end.
Thank you for the helpful information.
Hi Simon, I was wondering if a cloth has a higher ply number, then does that mean it has more texture?
For instance, is Drapers Ascot 6-ply more textured than Drapers Ascot 4-ply? Or is it something not related at all?
It usually will do, yes Jack, but not necessarily. It means the yarn is thicker, so you’re more likely to see it in the material, and that’s more likely to create texture
I’ve been looking at a wool/cashmere blend (fairly heavy cashmere, though unclear exactly how much). I’ve been told the weight is likely a 14-15 oz (it took me two months of unanswered emails and a very unhelpful phone call to find out anything.) I’m looking at options for a fitted jacket and skirt, with heavy tailoring in it, but not too heavy for common wear in the single digits Celsius. This seems likely to be too heavy for this, and not worth trying to get a sample considering the hassle, but some things I’ve read including on this site make me think it might be workable, and I was wondering if I can get a second opinion on the matter? Finding this sort of a blend in the correct shade of light grey in a not light weight has been tricky, so I’m hesitant to drop this as an option off the bat.
That would be heavy, but I think also lovely – do you wear heavier cloth like that already? I think how you feel about it can be quite personal, and something you get used to.
I was mostly just unsure if it would be too heavy to do a fitted thing with. I currently do not wear much wool in general—largely because I currently live in a very hot climate where it’s hot enough for linen year round. I will be moving to the UK in fall of 2024 however, so am considering finally getting to ahve wool things. I think I will go ahead and see if I can get a sample of this one, as I’m wanting a more substantial and heavy weight that’s nearish a thicker flannel in bulk.
I see. I think certainly get a sample Amelia, but if in doubt I’d maybe go for something lighter, given you’re not used to wearing that kind of material – it might be a bit of a leap
I’ll definitely keep hunting, it’s just an unusual target of something around a stout broadcloth in handling, but without a strong nap, but with a slight shine, and in a non heathered light grey.
The end use will be for more formal requiring but not dressy things when it’s a too cold for my charcoal black superfine suiting dress and jacket. I figure that between the pair of those I’ll probably be good for a few years.
From a male perspective, I find 13 oz cashmere very comfortable at room temperature and barely enough to keep me warm outdoors in single Celsius weather. Obviously everyone’s tolerance of cold is different, but for me, I’d have no concern about 15 oz cashmere, I hope that ia a little helpful.
My concern was less about warmth, more about being too bulky for anything fitted or shaped.
Sorry for misunderstanding.
For what it is worth, I have 15 oz wool suits and don’t find them noticeable bulkier than lighter ones. They just have more body and better drape.
Not a misunderstanding! This is helpful, actually. It being described as a coating had me concerned that I’d be dealing with overcoat thickness, which is distinctly not ideal for a fitted thing. I’m aiming for can do single digits either side of zero in Celsius with at most a broadcloth jacket added for the colder end.
I think 15 oz would be used in some off-the-rack coats and most suits and odd jackets in stores would never go anywhere near as high as 15 oz. But Simon has noted in the past that people can wear much heavier cloth comfortably while benefiting from better drape, and I’ve found this to be true, at least in Canada where I live. My tailor advises me that 15 oz suits used to be the norm for lower to mid-weight suiting 50 years ago.
Although a little unusual nowadays, I regularly wear 16 oz suits for a formal job in the City of London, and find them in no way too bulky or too hot for the climate here except in high summer. They also drape and hold their shape much better than my lighter suits.
This should be ideal for what I’m after— quite a lot of the style and construction of this will be filched from 1880s riding habit styles, so quite structured and solid.